Tag Archives: the London fire of 1748

The Streets Of London – Part One Hundred And Nine

Cowper’s Court, EC3

If you walk down Cornhill in an easterly direction, then on the right-hand side, just before you get to Birchin Lane, you will come across a passageway named Cowper Court. Unprepossessing as it may appear today, just another alley in the warren that characterises the area, it has its own share of stories to tell.   

Originally known as Fleece Lane, which is its moniker in John Rocque’s Map of London and Westminster of 1746, or Fleece Passage according to other contemporaneous maps, it took its name from a tavern in the vicinity, the Golden Fleece. This seems to have been a substantial building as it had to pay tax on sixteen hearths in 1662.

From around the middle of the 18th century the Passage hosted one of the bustling coffee houses of the time, the Jerusalem, popular amongst members of the East India Company and the venue where shipping news, gossip and opinions were shared. It rivalled the Lloyd’s coffee shop as the place to go to for breaking maritime news and was also frequented by traders associated with the South Sea Company.   

The Jerusalem earned a particularly unique place in detective history in 1845 with the arrest there of one John Tawell for murdering his mistress, Sarah Hart, by giving her prussic acid to prevent his affair coming out in the open. What was ground-breaking about Tawell’s arrest was that for the first time the police, stationed in Slough, used a new fangled device known as the telegraph to alert their London colleagues that a person matching Tawell’s description had boarded a train to Paddington. The police tailed him to the Jerusalem where they effected the arrest the following day. Despite spinning a line that the unfortunate Hart had eaten an apple whose pips had contained the poison, did not find salvation and was hanged in Aylesbury on March 28th the following year. Shortly afterwards, although for unrelated reasons, the Jerusalem fell out of fashion and eventually closed down.

I have noted on numerous occasions that fire had a major role to play in the development of the metropolis and this area of Cornhill was to suffer the largest fire to hit the city between the Great Fire and the Blitz. Starting in Mr Eldridge’s periwig-making establishment in Exchange Lane at around 1am on Friday March 25, 1748 it quickly spread due to poorly constructed housing lacking brick built dividing walls in attic spaces and inadequate fire fighting measures, its progress only arrested because the wind blew the flames towards more solidly built buildings and a wide road over which they could not cross. Nevertheless, over 100 buildings were destroyed, and six people died in the fire, the wig maker and his family together with a worker and a tenant, the latter breaking his back when he jumped out of a window.

The conflagration prompted an improvement in municipal firefighting capabilities including more effective equipment and the installation of turncocks in the streets, and the rise of house insurance. By 1750 most houses were insured. Of particular relevance to our street, the area was redeveloped and what was Fleece Lane was renamed Cowper’s Court, after Sir William Cowper, the first Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, who once had a house there.

Today it is a rather scruffy, undistinguished back alley, most of whose buildings are internally modern sitting behind facades, lined with striking white tiles to help reflect light into the windows of the nearby offices.